Airline Safety – Is Southwest Airlines Still the Safest?

April 5, 2011

By Terry Smiljanich:

Here’s a strange turn of events.  Southwest Airlines has had the distinction of being rated the safest major airline in the world,  as we’ve reported here on Consumer Warning Network.  That rating was based on the number of fatal crashes it has experienced since 1970, i.e., no such crashes. But given the recent news regarding fatigue cracks in its aging air fleet, resulting in a portion of a plane’s roof coming off and reports of further cracks in similar Boeing 737’s, should it still be regarded as safe, much less the safest?

I believe the answer is yes. Aging air fleets are a problem for all major airlines, and Southwest does not stand alone in this regard. This is not the first time a passenger plane in flight has suffered a partial failure of its roof structure. In 1988, an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 suffered a similar fate. The failure was so sudden that a flight attendant was swept away to her death as a consequence.

Aging Fleets

Fatigue cracks in airplane structures can be minor and almost undetectable until it is too late. The FAA requires periodic inspections of all airplanes in service, including inspections for such cracks. In fact, the FAA is currently considering more stringent standards for such inspections. The current political rage to further deregulate the industry was threatening to put a halt to such new standards, but that could change now due to concerns exposed by the Southwest incident. The FAA has ordered inspections be done with an electro-magnetic process that detects cracks invisible to the naked eye.

Our aging airplane fleet has been a concern for several years. In 1991 Congress passed the Aging Aircraft Safety Act, requiring more frequent inspections of older airplanes. By 2006, the average age of American Airline planes was 14 years. The Boeing 737, which is the workhorse of the airline industry, was first manufactured in 1967, and some of its older planes are still flying.

Southwest states that its average fleet age is eleven years, but the 737’s are the oldest planes in its fleet, with an age ranging between 14 and 27 years.

Tougher Inspections

On April 4, 2011, following the Southwest incident, the FAA announced an industry-wide program of inspections of the older Boeing 737’s needed to be implemented. Transportation Secretary LaHood stated: “Last Friday’s incident was very serious and could result in additional action depending on the outcome of the investigation.”

The recent incident with the Southwest Airline flight is yet another warning that the industry must pay closer attention to the creeping age of its fleet. Southwest grounded several flights and is engaged in a stepped up program of inspecting its aircraft for signs of fatigue in the structures of its planes. Rather than further deregulation in this critical area, we should demand stricter standards from our airline industry.

Southwest’s reaction to this incident is to be commended, and yes, it still remains the only major airline with no fatalities. Interestingly, Aloha Airlines is also a very safe airline, with just that one fatality in 1988.